In 1849, the American Bible Society included in its annual report a section that read, “Voltaire predicted that in the 19th century the Bible would be known only as a relic of antiquity.” Voltaire was a witty 18th century French intellectual who harbored deep hatred for Judeo-Christian Biblical civilization.
On page 94 of his Philosophical Dictionary he writes about Jews, “…an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.”
In a letter to King Frederick of Prussia he described Christianity as “…assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world.” Needless to say, in common with most secular fundamentalists today, he is much more tolerant and openminded about Islam.
Because nobody is wrong all the time, he made some good observations about business. In his Letters Concerning the English Nation, he contrasts England, where he lived for three years, with his native France. He describes how ordinary Frenchmen try to pass themselves off as aristocrats using phrases like “a man of my quality and rank” while they “hold merchants in the most sovereign contempt.” Voltaire then goes on to say, “The merchant, again, by dint of hearing his profession despised on all occasions, at last is fool enough to blush at his condition. I will not however take upon me to say which is the most useful to his country.”
England, he explains, is unique in having started off as a warlike and conquering nation that then transformed itself into a commercial nation. Writing about when Edward III conquered half of France in the 14th century, Votaire writes, “London was a poor country town.” He then explains that, eventually, owing to the English having become traders, businessmen and merchants, London outgrew Paris in power and prestige. Voltaire marvels at how only in England, the younger son of a “peer of the realm” can achieve prominence and success as a merchant. In most European countries, he says, men are obsessed with inherited title and finding connection to kings however in England, regardless of birth, a man could raise himself through trading in coal, wool, and corn. Voltaire mocks the would-be French and German aristocrats, “whose whole fortunes and estate put together, amounted to a few coats of arms and the starving pride they inherited from their ancestors.”
Voltaire would have been shocked to know that the Bible emphasizes the very approach he saw in England and praised. Instead of highlighting the political or ecclesiastical aristocrat, the ordinary citizen-farmer is the hero.
We’re told that when Israel enters its land all farmers should bring their annual first fruits to Jerusalem where they should place the baskets before the priest in the Temple. They were then to recite a proclamation.
Wouldn’t you suppose that in appreciation of nature’s bounty the grateful farmer might recite verses praising God’s creation of nature and its miraculous processes that make possible human sustenance? For instance, you might have expected those who brought their first fruits to articulate verses like these from Psalms.
Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving sing praise upon the harp to our God who covers the heaven with clouds, who prepares rain for the earth, who makes grass grow on the mountains.
In response to which, the priest might emphasize his own unique position in God’s hierarchy. .
However, in fact, the Jewish farmer’s annual first fruits proclamation is quite different and quite unexpected:
An Aramean tried to destroy my father, who then went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous; But the Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us terrible slavery. And when we cried to the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labor, and our oppression and brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesomeness, and with signs, and with wonders. And he has brought us to this place, and has given us this land, a land that flows with milk and honey. And now, I have brought the first fruits of the land.
Why a condensed history lesson rather than praise for nature’s bounty? Precisely because history bonds us to those who came before us and those who will follow us. Moreover, history bonds us to our nearest and dearest as we gather to celebrate anniversaries, birthdays and memorial observances. Amazingly, when we are celebrating the sustenance we enjoy, it is far more appropriate to celebrate our connection to our people than it is to sing of nature.
Our hero is the ordinary man who produces food and abundance from the earth. Only his proclamation matters and that proclamation personally links him not to his government and its bureaucrats, and not to his house of worship and its priests, but to his God, to his community and to his people.
Voltaire fails to note that Britain’s move towards the prosperity that eventually laid the foundations of the British Empire was occasioned by Oliver Cromwell’s readmission of Jews into England in 1656 from where they had been evicted in 1290. Bringing with them Scripture’s approval of the independent farmer and merchant who spread prosperity to individuals as well as to the nation, Jews helped transform London into the trading capital of the world.
Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate any verification that Voltaire either said or wrote the often-quoted prediction about the Bible becoming extinct. But, in a way that Voltaire might not appreciate that old secular cynic’s praise for the English merchant does correspond to Scripture’s recommendation for the economic life of a nation.